Oyster Interview: Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo
"I'm glad we started when we did."
Sonic Youth have always maintained a DIY aesthetic, even in the age of Auto-Tune. Their discography acts as a testament to all that is pure and magical about music. Guitars are primitive and vocals verge on howls, the sound shattering through everything you thought you knew. Raw is an overused word when it comes to musical discourse, but Sonic Youth are salt on a wound.
In my head the band exists in an alternate universe of cool, where Twitter isn't a thing and everybody always wears sunglasses. Over the telephone certainly isn't how I thought co-founder Lee Ranaldo and I would first meet, but this is 2012 and the future is now so I'm going to have to deal with it.
Being born in 1989 (seven years after Sonic Youth released their first album), my generation was the first to grow up almost entirely with the internet. It's second nature to me, but what is it to one of the most iconic figures in experimental rock? "I had this tiny Model 102 proto–laptop computer in the mid-eighties when it was all super-fledgling," Ranaldo tells me of his earliest memory of using the internet. "The storage medium was a cassette tape, and there was a very early internet company called Compuserve here in America. I remember driving down the highway in the summer of '85 or '86 in our van with this brand-newfangled computer and typing my journals, tour diaries, in the dark as we were going to the next gig." I process the thought that one of my favourite punk-rock superstars was probably one of the world's first bloggers. (Some of these journal entries have since been published in a book, Journals 80s: The Tour Diaries of Lee Ranaldo, from the Early Days of Sonic Youth).
Now the internet is "very much so" a part of Ranaldo's everyday life: he has his own site, as well as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Although he's down with technology, I'm stuck romanticising about decades I never knew, as humans tend to do. It seemed so much more real back when Sonic Youth were starting out. "There's something nice to be said about that period of time. I'm glad we started when we did," he indulges me. "I'm not really a nostalgic person, but I feel like music, or in some ways any art form, seemed to have a greater weight and mystery to it back then. You'd read a line about something — about a band or an artist or an album — and it might take you three months to track that record down, and once you did if you liked it you'd listen to it for days on end, pour over every detail of the cover art and the liner notes. It made for a very deep experience."
While I'm attracted to the nostalgic notions of fanzines and word-of-mouth (before it had a 140-character cap), the internet is essentially these same information exchanges, appropriated and expedited. Whereas before it would take "six months or longer" for records to get reviewed, "these days a record is released and it's nearly instantaneous to anyone who wants to find out about it around the globe."
But, of course, it's a double-edged sword. "I find, these days, music comes and goes so quickly — it's rare that music really sinks in over a long period of time. It seems like whatever you're listening to today is replaced by something else tomorrow. It wasn't that way when we started and it wasn't that way for a long time before the internet. I think it gave a more special and magical quality, sometimes."
In the current climate of ultra-convenience, oversaturation, and accessibility, can people still create this magic? "They do. They can and they do all the time. But there's so much out there that it's less important in the culture, in a certain way. It's easier to get people to find out about your records, but when millions of people are doing that all at once — whether it's your record or your book or your art show — there's more stuff out there. There's always room for that mega–pop hit that half the world falls in love with for a month at a time, or whatever. That's never going to change — and that's the only place where there's any kind of consensus anymore. But beyond that it's so fragmented and fractured that there's a million zillion sub-genres."
Sonic Youth have always perpetuated a sense of privacy — and with it an aura of authenticity. Meanwhile, we're living in a time when the everyday person is publishing intimate (albeit carefully curated) details about their lives on the internet, potentially in real time, to an audience of millions. "I think it's interesting for people to have the opportunity to put all that stuff out there. In general, I'm pretty in favour of it. I've always been really interested in diaries and memoirs and people documenting their own lives, so I find it to be pretty cool. There's definitely an awful lot of stuff out there that sometimes I feel like I really don't need to know... There's just a lot to wade through, let's put it that way."
When it comes to their own recording process, Sonic Youth — who released their 16th studio album in 2009 — have largely chosen to stick to a pre-digital sound. "We are most interested in a lot of techniques that have been around for a long time," Ranaldo says. "We still record a lot of stuff in very old-fashioned ways, using analogue tape and that kind of stuff. We definitely use digital, but we do a lot of stuff still very old-school."
Photography: Cara Stricker for Oyster #101